One time in New Orleans, during an annual music festival organized by Essence magazine, a lady flagged me down from her car. I was walking through the French Quarter. The air was sufficiently drenched. In a neighborhood that has been steadily losing black folks, the block was suddenly full of us—glowing in bright clothes, and laughing entirely too loud. But this woman was pretty pissed.
When I reached her window, she gave me another nod. She squinted at my tattoos, and asked where the nearest parlor was.
“But one for us,” she said. “I’ve already been to four today.”
I pointed her to a guy I knew, up the road and around the corner. When she asked if he was black, I winced, because he was not.
“He’s good though,” I said. “I mean it. He’s done me twice.”
The lady looked deeply skeptical. But then she said, “Okay.”
“Listen,” she continued. “I don’t know about that. But I’m going to trust you.”
There’s a look you get used to receiving, and quickly, if you’re black with tattoos. First, there’s the flicker of recognition. A scan from your audience, digesting your appearance. A brief smile or flinch, as the appraiser does some mental calculus. Then there are a few beats as they read more cues: your speech, and your demeanor, and your gait, and your dress.
Once they’ve put a picture together, whatever that looks like, the conversation can resume, if the results are to their liking. If not, there’s the polite exit. Or the impolite one. Or an outright cession from any future interactions. But your reaction, in most cases, is almost always the same: a knowing grin, and an acknowledgment of the proceedings, and the silent agreement to act like that shit isn’t actually taking place at all.
Nearly one in five Americans claim to have a tattoo somewhere on their body. If they’re younger, like millennial young, the trend’s a little closer to one in three. The pejorative connotations surrounding tattoos have certainly diminished in the States, even if only a little bit, over the last decade or so. Television has played a major role, from Ink Master to Best Ink to LA Ink, and Miami Ink and NY Ink; and the radio has, too, from choppy anthems to poppy ballads.
But it’s interesting to note that the context of that “positive” change in perception is very particular. Which is to say that it’s pretty white. Which, if you live in the States, shouldn’t be much of a surprise at all. If you are white, tattoos lead to the presumption of military service, a culinary background, some nod at self-expression or a “rebellious” phase. If you aren’t white, then you’re immediately, until proven otherwise, trapping or banging or otherwise dubiously affiliated.
Anyone’s personal history of their tattoos is just that: personal. But for some communities, there are overlaps and similarities. There are tropes of casual discrimination and shared stories of blatant ignorance. Some of these anecdotes are more hapless than others. One early tattoo of mine (a pair of hands surrounding some stars) saw me shuffled from artist to artist. With my “complexion,” they didn’t see how it could be done. Another tattoo (a rosemary branch) prompted an interrogation at a Texas barbecue joint because this guy couldn’t understand why a black dude would “go and get something like that.” I got my most recent tattoo while I was abroad (a koi fish), and I hadn’t expected it to make a fuss; but, in the airport, stuck in Ontario, this white lady reached over and pulled up my sleeve.
She was holding a baby. She apologized immediately. But she said she’d never seen something like that on someone so dark.
You’re so dark, she said, rocking the kid. I mean, that’s new. I don’t think I’ve seen that before.
For as long as there have been people breathing up Earth’s air, body art, in its various forms, has found its way onto our skin: the history of African tattooing extends thousands of years. Some of the earliest known tattoo wearers were Egyptian: markings were discovered on the remains of women dated circa 2000 B.C. Samoan societies have worn them for generations, and Polynesian tattoo culture spans two millennia. In Japan, body modification extends as far back as the Jomon period (about 10,500 B.C. to 300 B.C.); while tattooing in China, relegated punitively or to minority populations or with great disdain, has a history extending ages. Native Americans have practiced tattooing, for religious ceremonies and tribal identification, since before the Christian era, but prior to European invasion and desecration these practices went largely undocumented.
In the United States, following the land’s colonization, the Native American practice of tattooing was widely deemed barbaric. But in the nineteenth century, sailors who had sailed to the South Pacific brought the practice back to Western shores. Over several centuries, tattoos saw a cultural rebranding. They gained aesthetic value. The single largest source of that shift was the honing of the electric tattoo machine in 1891—the process, and its connotations, were revolutionized nearly overnight. It is said Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother, had a snake tattoo that circled her wrist like a bracelet, which likely cost as much, if not more, than the rest of her fine jewelry. And by 1900, every major American city had some sort of studio. But as accessibility increased, the practice’s attractiveness adjusted accordingly. Tattoos soon became the province of supposedly “loose women” (while the “virtue” of men, regardless of their tattoos, wasn’t questioned), sideshows, and outcasts, before slowly being made “cool” again by rock musicians. Though, of course, any sense of the “desirability” of tattoos held true solely for white people.
Modern tattooing, on the whole, is one of the wildest things a sentient person can subject themselves to. Tattooing itself is the act of inserting ink all the way into the middle layer of your skin (the dermis). It’s the reason the result is both permanent and painful. But for folks with a little more melanin, that pigment is produced by the layer above the dermis, the epidermis. Your ink is injected below the melanin but above the middle layer. On paler skin, that layer is mostly translucent, which is why you’ll hear some tattooists note that vibrant brighter colors are less prone to stand out on darker bodies. It’s also why, on tattooed people of color, there’s a more limited color palette in comparison to their fairer counterparts.
But there can be a tentativeness, if not an outright recalcitrance, for tattooists to work with nonwhite folks. Common excuses are the restriction of the artist’s palette, the “blurriness” of dark skin, and a lack of experience with the “medium.” And they extend from individual shops to the national platform: on the second season of Ink Master, the show’s eventual winner balked at the prospect of working with dark-skinned black men. (“I don’t want the dark canvases,” Steve Teftt said. “They take away half your skill set.”)
If you’re darker, a tattoo artist who cares will tell you that bright colors won’t look very good for very long. They’ll also tell you that whatever you’d like ingrained in your skin will need to be larger than on someone white. If they’re adept at their craft, they’ll find a work-around to play with the brightness and the effect of the shading on their canvas so that it’s reflective of your vision. And while adjusting for darker limbs can be a little different than a clearer canvas, it is hardly the miraculous feat that some tattoo artists make it out to be. Some artists might even note that, due to the texture of the skin, darker canvases can be easier to tattoo.
A simple, if not feeble, argument would be that if black people would like to be tattooed, they should simply visit black tattoo artists. And while there is, of course, a thriving community of black tattoo parlors and practitioners in the States, this line of thinking is akin to presuming that, if black people would like to be lit nicely on film, they should only work with black cinematographers; or that, if black people would like meals seasoned to their liking, they should only eat at black-cheffed establishments. It is faulty at best, and idiotic at worst. You’d be hard-pressed to find a black tattoo artist who would turn their face at a white canvas.
On any body, to wear a tattoo is an act of change. It is a will being imposed. And perhaps this is why folks everywhere, from gang members to marines to chefs to nurses to grocers to Ricardo and Takashi and Henrietta down the road, have all, in some shape or form, found themselves attracted to the practice: its value is, ultimately, for the holder, not the beholder.
But it’s worth wondering who, exactly, we imagine can wear tattoos. And why.
I got my first one a few years back, after a prolonged state of consideration. I was visiting a friend in New Orleans, a city I’d eventually come to live in for a stint. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in the country’s blackest city, and it was the first time I’d seen so many black folks with tattoos. I’d convinced myself that what I needed was a bear on my shoulder, a nod to a nickname from an ex I was friendly with (he’d called it “apt”). But the first shop I walked into said they didn’t have anyone on hand. Or at least no one that could pull it off. The guy behind the counter smiled sadly at me, noting my skin.
I walked right out of that studio and into another one. The lady behind the counter there voiced the same concerns. She told me someone would be around tomorrow, and I told her I’d be gone the next morning, and she frowned a little bit, but she wrote something down. She gave me the slip and a name to ask for.
That building was around the corner, just outside of the Quarter. There wasn’t much of a crowd. A stocky white guy leaned on the counter. When I showed him the note, he told me that was him. He also said he was game. He laid me in a chair, wiped down my shoulder, and, to A Tribe Called Quest tune, proceeded to work.
I stood up a few hours later. The bear sat on my shoulder. It shined brightly and gravity had shifted, if only for me.
My tattoo artist asked if I was into it, and I told him I was. Nothing could have been easier. We both stood, and he shook my hand. Then, a bit shyly, he asked if he could take a photo: he said he couldn’t have been happier with how everything came out.
Bryan Washington lives in Houston. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.